PHOTOGRAPHY: CURTIS TAYLOR JR. / STYLED BY MCCALL ALEXANDRA / MUA: BRIAHNA MCNEIL
The ATL-raised dancing tycoon has been apart of iconic dance movements since winning a VMA with Beyoncé for ‘Single Ladies’ in 2009. Whether he’s making memorable moves for Tinashe or the brain behind N*E*R*D’s latest #LemonDanceChallenge his moves is guaranteed to stick with you whether you can help it or not.
JaQuel walks in the studio from rehearsing for Beyoncé’s upcoming-now-iconic Coachella performance wearing merch from JAY-Z‘s 4:44 Tour. JaQuel is ready for his close up. As we fill the room with Afrobeats, JaQuel is dancing into the looks provided for his first frame shot.
We learn about what influenced the iconic Beychella performance, working with N.E.R.D., his work with Tinashe, being on Forbes: 30 under 30 and his beginnings as a choreographer.
What was your first concert?
My first concert was Snoop Dogg’s ‘Up In Smoke Tour’ in middle school in 2004/05.
What made you go to this particular show?
I’m just a really big Snoop Dogg fan.
You must be from L.A?
I’m not! I’m from Atlanta. My dad is a huge fan of Hip-Hop. I remember being with my dad. It was like, almost every album that came out we would listen to it in the morning, afternoon and night. I’ve always had a love for music especially hip-hop. I was around listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg all the time because of my dad. When my best friend at the time was a record producer in Atlanta — we found a way to get tickets to see Snoop.
I love to ask creatives that question because of my love for live-performance art and dance. It kind of gages the type of music they like to listen to? When did you know you like to dance?
Growing up in North Carolina and my family had lots of cookouts. They’d fry some fish, some hushpuppies and we’d filled our belly’s with food and put on some music. You knew when music would come on it’s that time to show your moves to only your family. My cousins and I would make up routines and we would also perform the hell out of them…our cookouts was like a mini talent show. My cousins and I would wear everybody out. [laughs]
You just wouldn’t stop?
My mom and my aunties would dance all night, it was the so fun! Those ladies could dance, I tell you! But, my family entire family was so supportive of me, they’d push me into talent shows. The funny thing is, I never actually liked to dance. So I wouldn’t have to dance too much, I’d always make the show up so at one point in the show, I would be the special surprise guest. My mom loved it. But that’s my mom so of course, she loved it. My mom is very special woman.
Didn’t you think you could make a career out of dance professionally?
No, not really. I never liked to just dance, so that wasn’t even an option for me. I was a kid and just clueless about the technical side of dance. MTV was my dance teacher. Soul Train was my dance teacher. So I never took a dance class. You know the people that grew up in dance class — that wasn’t me. In elementary school, I started to get into music. I started playing saxophone in sixth grade, and I became more of a music head. Playing an instrument made me become more of a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kameo, all the old, big band sounds that had great instrumentation.
Artists that made those sonic vibrations, to make you dance, was what you became attracted to?
Yeah, Frankie Beverly & Maze, y’know. It was all connected to those cookouts. These are the records that are being played at the cookouts especially once you get into the evening hours, you start to switch from the young folk’s music to the grown folk’s music. These were sounds that I’ve been attracted to a young age. Once I got into high school, I started marching in the band when I moved to Atlanta. Marching bands were big in the south, especially around that time.
What year was that?
This was around 2002 / 2003. Even before the film, Drumline, it was like ‘Marching bands are a thing. Let’s make a movie!’ Y’know what I’m saying?
Absolutely. Drumline is a quintessential black film classic.
Drumline is such a good movie and it’s so real to me because I was so immersed in that world. I knew what the summer band camps were like, the practicing, what the football games felt like, the battle of the bands — like that’s how I grew up as a “band head”.
So what did that lead you to?
At that time, I just knew I was going to be a big-time music producer. I went to school for audio engineering on a music scholarship and eventually started making records. My whole dream, when I was younger, was to be the next Pharrell Williams.
Now you’re full circle, you’re working with him now.
Yeah, that’s what’s crazy and really bizarre.
Speaking of artists, that influenced you, who do you remember influencing you while watching MTV to help you appreciate dance?
Of course, Michael & Janet Jackson are at the top of the list. I remember learning “Remember The Time” choreography at my grandmother’s house. I would wait for MTV to play the full video. It started to switch for me once MTV started broadcasting awards shows. I’m like a child of the pop-era — I remember when TLC did the crazy performance to ‘No Scrubs,’ I remember *NSYNC and Britney Spears’ first award show performance when they had the school theme performance and NSYNC were on the desk and jumped cars — I remember all of that influencing me. I’m a fan of that era in music.
The bar was really high for performance art.
The bar for performance art was so high. They had the imagination of an astronaut and was able to do whatever they wanted.
What was your first gig as a professional dancer?
My first gig as a dancer had to be DJ Unk at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. I believe the first year the awards aired.
That was “Walk It Out” right?
Yeah. [laughs] We had the big XXXL shirts with the words “Walk It Out” airbrushed on the front. That was the first gig that I auditioned and booked. I was really close for a part in the film Stomp The Yard.
Wow. That would’ve been dope.
I didn’t get it but that was the moment I believed that I really wanted to pursue dance professionally at some capacity. It was set in Atlanta. Most of the dancers and choreographers were teaching classes on their days off so I became really close to the cast that was in Atlanta for Stomp The Yard. They were a special part of why I decided to move to L.A. and dance. The first time, I went to L.A. during my senior year and stayed with Tyrell Washington for 10 days and that experience changed my life.
When did you transition out of ATL to Los Angeles?
I quit the band. Then I started a dance team with my best friend Tiffany and we called them True Stylez Dance Troop. I started spending my time immersing myself within that. It was about 12 of us. I immersed myself in that group.
You recruited 12 members, so you were an assembled dance crew or this was people you knew?
Both. It started out as a school activity, and we would perform at the basketball games. Then it became serious, we got invited to perform at an Atlanta celebrity basketball game, then we got invited to the city-wide talent show then we were featured in music videos — it started to become a thing. People would put on dance events just to invite us there. I guess I can say we were one of the best dance crews in the city.
I always wondered if there was any realness to how films portrayed dance crews?
Yeah, kinda. People would put on dance events just to invite us there. I guess, I can say we were one of the best dance crews in the city.
I would think so, they had JaQuel Knight in their crew!
No, I sucked! I haven’t always been good! I worked hard to get where I am now! [laughs]
I still think you had to be one of the shining lights in the crew especially to not be classically trained at dancing. I think those are some of the best dancers we have like MJ, Janet even Beyoncé — they never trained to dance they have a natural movement of dance in them.
Yeah, but being a professional dancer means that teachers want clean lines but me coming from Atlanta it was different. For me, movement was always about the sound, the music, the beat. I’m thankful for growing up in Atlanta and learning the styles I’ve learned. Atlanta has a groove and a bounce that no other city has. Growing up learning ‘Crank’ and going balls to the wall when a song is playing — I’m super thankful for that because if it wasn’t for Atlanta I would be just like the rest of the choreographers in Los Angeles. I probably wouldn’t be popping. [laughs]
I love your style of dance because I can see you’re really versatile from the lineage of work you’ve done already — the fact that you can do ‘Single Ladies’ but also do ‘Lemon’ to have that range and be able to do both and it looks good — iconic movement is a skill. To execute dance that people want to do and can attempt to do is very well thought out.
You know, I grew up around people dancing. Family time was all about “Let’s get together and have fun”…our fun was all about dancing. And then there was my marching band days. What I loved most was choreographing 150 people who were running/marching all day and who were also great musicians.
That’s a great experience to have. I was always intrigued by how a choreographer would string together moves and get everyone together to learn that same choreography.
It’s definitely a skill. I started practicing that early.
Speaking of teaching dance, I didn’t know you choreographed ‘Single Ladies’ until a few months ago. I thought Frank Gatson did that — without question its one of the most iconic movements within the last decade. What inspired that concept?
Beyoncé had this idea — she saw this clip of these three ladies from the Mexican breakfast featuring Gwen Burden and was choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. She saw this clip and Frank Gatson was her creative director so Frank was involved in her music videos, performances, etc.
How did you meet Frank Gatson?
Frank Gatson changed my life. I met Frank when I was in LA and I auditioned for a Michelle Williams solo project. He hired me to dance, soon after he told me he might have a cool gig for me in a few months. Frank called me a few months later saying, “I have this Beyoncé record, can you get to New York tonight? If she likes you, you’ll stay. If not, you’ll go back to L.A”. I get to New York that night, Frank and I went to the studio and Frank played me the record. After I hear it, “I’m like, what do I do with this?” [laughs] Frank showed me the Bob Fosse reference so I started to spit out a string of movements that I thought was cool to ‘me’ at the time. Then Frank and I started trying out different pieces of the choreography with Beyonce’s Head Dancer, Ashley Everett, we tried all the moves on her first and Beyoncé would come in and do an eight-count then sit and talk, digest it, and figure out more choreography. We kept that same process up for two weeks. We knew we wanted to bring something different to the culture.
It was a process.
There was a place down the street in New York called Georgio’s which is one of my favorite restaurants, and we would order chicken wings and those chicken wings would inspire us. [laughs] We would literally bite into those wings and be like, “What about this?” (laughs), It sounds crazy but we would be exhausted but the moment we took a bite… boom!
Well, I guess its safe to credit Georgio’s Hot Wings as one of the dance inspirations behind ‘Single Ladies?’ All that time before this prepared you for this moment?
Yes! I remember going through the process of working with Beyonce. Frank would say before the shoot, “you can’t see it yet she’s learning it, she’s getting the movement into her blood”. Beyoncé would ask me all kinds of questions. She wanted to get the essence of the choreography down to perfection. She worked very, very hard on the choreography.
I remember that time where Beyoncé was cross-promoting two singles at the time and I think a lot of energy was going towards a Pop sound but she also softly released ‘Single Ladies’ but it was culturally one of the coolest moments in pop culture. I think Beyoncé honed in on who she was as an artist moving forward and you’ve contributed to that moment and she trusts you.
Yes, I believe that as well. Beyoncé worked with many incredible choreographers before me but she wanted someone else for “Single Ladies.” I know she was like, “Who’s this young guy coming here, Frank? Where my other people at?!” [Laughs] But Frank really pushed for me, he kept saying, “I know he got something.” Frank told me after the video shoot that Bey told him, “You were right about him!” (laugh)
Ever since then we’ve been connected at the hip. I remember following ‘Single Ladies’ I would be in New York every other week. Back and forth traveling from L.A. every week. ‘Single Ladies’ catapulted my career.
That moment was so huge. You have a track record and it’s not just with Beyoncé but you won an MTV VMA for ‘Best Choreography’! Was that moment reassuring? Walk us through that night.
Oh my god. One, being nominated was crazy to me. Like I said, I was a student of MTV. I couldn’t believe that was my name being nominated for a VMA. I remember being in New York with my mom who I took to the award show with me. It was definitely a night to remember. We sat there and watched the show and y’know that was the ‘Kanye & Taylor’ night…
Ok. Pause. Let’s talk about that moment. As a Kanye fan, I was upset because that was the night Janet Jackson performed ‘Scream’ to honor her late brother Michael Jackson. Kanye took that shine away from Janet at that moment because he did that right after Janet performed. That moment even overshadowed the death of Michael Jackson. I understood his sentiments because you can’t give Beyoncé ‘Video of the Year’ but not ‘Best Female Video,’ it didn’t make sense.
Kanye shut that whole show down by the way. That moment was even more talked about than the ‘Single Ladies’ performance. Kanye! It was super special to me though. I was thinking to myself, “they’re not going to give us ‘Best Choreography’ award” after that … I was grateful to receive that from MTV.
I wish they would… Imagine if they gave someone else ‘Best Choreography’ with Beyoncé in the category.
I just felt like it would play out differently but they caught themselves. Even giving Beyoncé ‘Video of the Year’ award. I don’t know if they were even planning on doing that. That was a year that it felt like MTV was behind the curve for some reason and blind to what was right in front of them and tried to create a wave of their own but the people were like… MTV, don’t even try it… You can feel it throughout that entire night.
Yeah, because if Taylor Swift wins ‘Best Female Video’ what does that mean for the rest of the categories. ‘Best Choreography’ had to be an off-air award. How was that presented to you?
They send you the awards a few months after but I remember walking and overhearing him just say ‘Best Choreography’ and Bey accepted her award and also met my mom at that moment. I was 19 at the time.
Wow. 19! Now speaking of Bey, you’re working on the Coachella performance. Everyone is expecting something new — there’s also a lot of hearsay involving Destiny’s Child as well.
I will say I’m excited myself! Being a fan of Beyoncé, I can’t wait for the performance.
This is her first time at Coachella? The first black woman to headline?
Yes, this is her first time.
But she did perform with Solange once before?
Yeah, that wasn’t even her performance she just did a dance with her sister but that was Coachella.
We also did ‘Feeling Myself’ at Coachella with Nicki Minaj. So it feels good to be going back in April this year. I’m looking forward to it.
Speaking of your iconic movement, Tinashe’s ‘All Hands on Deck’ from a dancing artist has to be one of my favorite recent dance videos in a while. How was it working with Tinashe?
I don’t even know where to start with Tinashe! I started working with Tinashe a few years before she was the star Tinashe. So we go ‘2 On’ in 2014. I started working with Tinashe when she was 15.
Once ‘2 On’ took off and was a summer smash. I was putting all her looks together. I wanted to bring back ‘the pop star’ again. Especially in terms of singing, dancing and awesome live performance pieces that resonated with people at home like, ‘Wow! This girl is an entertainer!’ That was my dream with her. ‘All Hands on Deck’ video moment is kind of epic!
That video was one of the best dance videos of the 2010s. I can’t think of any other video so mesmerizing. To have empty trailers stacked individually isolating all the choreography was genius.
Yes, it was a complete look. I felt like she was going into this star that we wanted to be around. People were connecting to the way she moved to the record. The dance was bigger than the record which is a major thing to say. People connected to the dance and wanted to see Tinashe do more. Dancing in those containers blind from the other dancers wasn’t easy but that shows how well rehearsed they were as well. Going back to being in a marching band I’m big on everyone being in sync with each other to pierce through the camera to affect everyone at home.
It’s kind of spiritual… my process from rehearsal to delivering a music video. The Tinashe was a project that I had to heavy voice on.
How involved are you now with Tinashe’s career? I believe she’s one of the most underrated artists we have in today’s music.
I’m super separated from Tinashe currently. You may see that separation in the latest videos from her. After ‘All Hands On Deck’ we took a break and then she shot another video but I helped on ‘Super Love.’ Tinashe is super talented she just needs to be around people that just gets her, especially the time we live in today where it’s one day you’re hot, next day they pretend to not know your name — so you gotta surround yourself with a team that just gets it. She has the ability to make a dent in pop culture.
Kanye West also co-signed this video as well!
Yes, Kanye has good taste! From ‘Single Ladies’ to ‘All Hands on Deck’. [laughs].
He’s really in love with your work and he doesn’t even know it.
I’m waiting for the Kanye & JaQuel collab to happen.
That would be amazing considering Ye does like dance videos — look at ‘Fade’ and what it did for culture and dance.
Fade was amazing. The record was crazy. Teyana Taylor looked beautiful. It was the perfect marriage between dance and sound.
What goes through your mind when you’re connecting choreography?
I start with the music. I literally spend as much time as I can blasting the record wherever I’m going. Learning every piece within the music. The bass line. The melody. The background vocals. All of that I drown myself in before I start creating movement. Once I feel one with the record, I feel a responsibility for how people move to the record once they’ve seen the video. That’s a big deal to me. The responsibility for how the entire world will move to a record.
Wow. Yes, that is a huge responsibility.
So I think it’s important to get ahead of the artist and producers and try to present something to the world that also does justice to them. Once I’m in that space, I’ll worry about who I’m working with whether it’s Beyoncé, Tinashe, Big Sean or something cool like the N.E.R.D. project now. It’s all about where my the artist or client is in their career and what they’re trying to do.
I’m diving for different things to happen in the choreography. If I’m doing something for a pop star I go somewhere different in my mind. If I’m doing something hot for a rapper, it’s a totally different process and in my mind I go somewhere totally opposite. It matters where they are as an artist and I start moving based on that factor. I go to the dance studio and paint, and the bodies that I bring in and make move are my canvases.
Let’s talk about the N.E.R.D. project. The ‘Lemon’ choreography. I love that the movement seems free-styled. Was it a conscious decision to use Mette Towley instead of Rihanna in the video?
The decision was very conscious. Pharrell wanted to create a project that wasn’t about him or N.E.R.D. He wanted to create something that was about the music and the energy of the music. He wanted it to be about the people dancing to the music. Through that concept, we’re not calling them music videos… we’re calling them tutorials. It’s about learning how to be apart of the energy and vibe of the records. Teaching people how to be free. Teaching people how to be: you. We went through a process of interviewing and auditioning girls for that lead role position. You have to mentally be in a position of understanding where we are as a society and how the perspective of culture and expectations placed on women, being black, our music, being put in a box… it’s all of those things. It’s all apart of the story of the entire N.E.R.D. project.
Even in the visual for ‘Lemon’ from her cutting off her hair. It wasn’t about her getting a buzz cut. It was about her being beautiful in her skin and be one with herself and dancing freely. The choreography isn’t overtly sexual but it’s something sexy about the piece on her. It’s powerful. It’s empowering. It’s a celebration of dance and movement. Can celebration of dance heal everything going on in society? Yes! It can. Everything was intentional but in a super subtle way.
Will there be more tutorials to come?
Yes. There will be more. ‘1000′ is out now. We have a couple more on the way. We have two ready to go. It all depends on where Pharrell wants to go with the project moving forward. I’m not sure if you’re aware of what we did a ComplexCon. I had the honor of choreographing the entire album from top to bottom.
Wow. I saw a few recaps from the listening party at ComplexCon! I wanted to be there but didn’t make it.
It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. The moment and how we presented dance as an high-art environment to the masses. It was super conceptualized and never been done. It was the first time people witnessed a live-performance album listening event. I’m super thankful for the opportunity to Pharrell, Shay and Chad for being able to celebrate dance at this level.
Is there anyone that you want to work with that you haven’t yet?
My dream job is to work for Gucci Mane. I’m from Atlanta so Gucci Mane has always been a part of my upbringing and I love his music. To see how he’s transformed from being locked up to being married, positive and constantly releasing new music … I see so much potential there. I think there’s so much room there to leave a stamp on the world.
If you got that opportunity, I believe you’d have everyone dancing to Gucci. I know he’s not a dancer but incorporating some facet of dance into his work would look dope.
I have so many ideas! I’m just waiting for that to happen. It’s going to happen. I feel it, it’s coming. I also feel the same way about DJ Khaled. Look at his last few years. I’m seeking to get with Sylvia Rome to have a sit-down and try to flesh out some ideas with Khaled because I think it’s room to tap into something I don’t think they think about as rappers. They’ve done so much for culture. It’s room to elevate and push things to new realms. I’m always looking for new ways to present choreography to the world. Rihanna. I still haven’t touched Rihanna.
I think there’s a big misconception that Rihanna can’t dance but I believe that’s a total lie especially after her music video for ‘Where Have You Been’ so I’d love to see a piece from you.
Yeah. I love Rihanna. Her music is crazy, young and fun. Like you said, Rihanna can move. Don’t let Rihanna fool y’all. She just wants to have fun but she has it.
I believe you’re the first choreographer to make the Forbes 30 under 30 lists. You’re breaking a lot of concrete from breaking artists and working with top-tier influential artists. This year has already been a wild year. How does that feel?
It’s been a wild year! You know how people will say that they always want to do this or that and you wait for a pay raise to do those things … people wait for these things in life. I brought on an executive assistance a year ago to elevate my career and company and since that year milestone, the Forbes list thing has been on my bucket list.
Did you attend the Forbes 30 under 30 event?
Yes. They held a welcoming event in New York. It was wild. Especially as a creative guy who dances for a living in a room full of business-folk. [laughs] A lot of them were really young from 19 to 22 and they are doing really awesome things in the fields of science and tech. I met some really cool people there. I’ve been talking to some of them via phone meetings and we’re going to start crafting some things involving merging music and tech to see how we can push more limits.
Congratulations JaQuel, to be such a young person in your craft because dance is one of those things that people enjoy but not execute at the same level. You’re breaking boundaries for your craft that deserves celebration.
You also have a self-titled entertainment company, tell us a little bit about the purpose of JaQuel Knight Entertainment.
JaQuel Knight Entertainment is my baby. It’s an entertainment company focused in creative direction and choreography, of course. I’m also branching out for more work involving music, TV development and feature films. I believe my fresh, young, outlook on things is new to the industry as a whole and feel like I have something to offer. Right now, I have 3 choreographers I’m developing and I hope they’ll go on and be great and accomplish some of the same things I have. I’m also directing music videos now. Writing a musical. I’m also writing some pieces for scripted and non-scripted television. I’m also very close to selling one which is crazy so it’s fulfilling.
We need more movies like You Got Served, Honey — we need more stories like that, I feel like those are super necessary right now and if anybody could execute them I think it would be you. I’m looking forward to seeing some of your work on the screen.
Was music video directing something you’ve always wanted to do — capturing stories through film?
Yeah. You know I’m an artist in its truest form of the word. I used to compose music, play instruments, graphic design … I love to cook, looking in magazines for cool stuff, love architecture … I can’t resist creating. I could sit here all day and just create. I think I’ve always had the vision of producing talent forever. My goal is to produce a show that is completely me. From the artist, executive producing how it sounds, the visuals — how it looks and feel. That’s the goal for me. Being able to present a piece of art that mine from creative direction, artist development, styling and A&Ring the project. I think the journey from choreographer to director is a natural journey for me.
I direct the dance scenes in the videos I choreograph. That’s what people don’t really get. The whole reason I’m on the NERD project, Todd Torso, we’ve met before we were working with Bey. I was originally called to oversee the choreography and make sure it was shot correctly and as the project developed he just said, “I think JaQuel should just do it all.” So that meant, “I need you to edit, I need you DP’ing I need to be on set while shooting, be behind the camera.” So this transition is organic. Victoria Monet is an up-and-coming singer-songwriter that’s a really good friend of mine. Huge fan of her work. “Ready” was the first music video that is directed by JaQuel Knight.
I remember hearing her voice for the first time on Eric Bellinger’s project and I really loved ‘Liquid Courage‘ with the two of them. I saw the video, it’s a really cool video.
Yeah, she’s doing everything independently. So that’s a really special project for me. Another dream of mine is to bring back those big movie musicals. Where is the Chicago’s of today? Where are the Fred Astaire’s of today? Where are those movies? Tap? Jazz? Where you feel a connection to the story, the choreography, the cinematography … That’s where we’re talking JKE is bringing back dance in a really major way.
Since our interview, JaQuel has hired a development team and executive assistant for JKE. Knight is also nominated for a 2018 MTV VMA for ‘APES**T‘ and currently on the ‘On The Run II‘ tour with Beyoncé and JAY-Z.
Terrell Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of SWGRUS.